Monday, November 29, 2021

Hats off to so many hats

Appreciations abound across the Internet in celebration of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 91. I'm not sure how much I have to add, but I'll share a few observations from just out on the edges of musical theater fandom.

I was fairly late to the game in grasping Sondheim's genius, mostly because I was more focused on the world of classical music through pretty much all of my education. I grew up with a lot of Golden Age musicals, including West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics), but had somehow not quite tuned into the Sondheim sound/style. His elusive, indirect way of composing managed to sidestep me even when I would occasionally accompany a song of his here or there. This makes some sense as his songs are not as easily excised from their contexts as many Golden Age favorites.

As it happens, during a time in which I was mildly dismissive of Sondheim, I wondered often why there weren't more "serious" composers interested in musical theater and musical comedy in general. I'd fallen in love with the comic brilliance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Britten's Albert Herring and thought it a shame that the typical modern opera composer seemed more interested in ultra-serious storytelling than (deceptively) simple silliness. (I know there are exceptions to that, but that's not the point for now.)  Mozart and Britten had proven to me how effectively music can serve two essential elements of good comedy - precise comic timing and expressions of human frailty.

I suspect that the typical "serious" composer might find that a true stage show requires surrendering too much control of the overall product, but it seemed a price that could be worth paying for a composer interested in connecting with audiences. I was also curious to see how a classical composer might work with non-classical voices trained to focus more on text declamation than bel canto sound. And though I loved shows like Guys and Dolls, Camelot, and The Music Man, that Broadway tradition seemed inherently simpler and more formulaic than what a sophisticated classical composer might offer if given the chance. (Again, I know that's overly simplistic, but I'm just trying to give a sense of where my thinking was.) 

My point, of course, is that I hadn't been paying attention to the incredibly sophisticated and endlessly creative work Sondheim had been doing all along. The music doesn't often sound like classical music, though there are definitely echoes of Ravel and Stravinsky and others to be found, and the singing often sounds even less classical, with exceptions here and there; so superficially, it was easy enough to miss just how much was going on. The fact that he was setting his own lyrics certainly helps explain his willingness to write in a way that doesn't always foreground the "pure" musical ideas, but skillful text-setting also demands a kind of artistry that has eluded many classical composers. Sondheim's songs generally provide more freedom for singing actors to find their voice than one finds in typical opera roles, and that might seem like a kind of musical compromise; but he generally manages to keep the words, the drama, and the music in a magical equilibrium on the same level as a Schubert or Schumann.

The question of which musical world (classical, opera, musical theater, jazz, pop, etc.) a composer belongs to might seem needlessly artificial and limiting, but it's a reality that practical experience tends to categorize things in these ways. One basic example of this is that, as a music major, I never heard Sondheim's name mentioned in a class - at least not that I recall. There's a lot of consternation about the way the classical music world fences itself off, some of it justified and some of it a little unfair, but a useful distinction might be this: classical composers tend to think of the composed music as the primary thing and thus the thing that develops and shapes a perceptive experience. Sondheim didn't choose to enter this arena.

In the same way, a film composer like John Williams may have all the necessary skills to be a classical composer, but he's chosen to work mostly in a world in which visuals and storytelling lead the way. Hearing his soaring melodies and brilliant orchestration accompany a film is quite a different thing than having Beethoven or Mahler firmly at the helm guiding our perceptive focus for 30-60 minutes (or more). Though Sondheim often blurs this distinction, a musical theater experience tends to be led by words and stories with songs as embellishments. In contrast, we tend to think of an opera as being led primarily by the composer's vision. One can listen to operas by Mozart, Wagner and Puccini and find deep satisfaction without even knowing what the words mean. (I know this from experience!)

There are lots of exceptions for sure, but though Sondheim surely had the skill to write sonatas and string quartets, he chose to do almost all of his composition in the service of words and stories on stage. A typical composer of symphonies or operas expects specific kinds of sonic sophistication from performers since the sound is, on some level, the thing. Sondheim's music can soar when sung by "character" voices like those of Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury, or Chip Zien. Though Sondheim has something of a reputation as a show-off (at least as lyricist), this willingness to serve the dramatic moment, at the expense of putting his composer chops on display, is one of his strengths.

I'll give three examples from my three favorite Sondheim shows. First of all, anyone with doubts about whether he could write great tunes should get to know "Not while I'm around." It's as gorgeous, and soaring, and heart-stirring a melody as anything by Rodgers, Loewe, Kern or even Gershwin. But it's also stuck in a rather creepy scene in Sweeney Todd, sung by a character who often has more of a "character" voice and who seems thoroughly unqualified to provide what he's so eloquently professing to offer. As if that weren't enough, there's some really unsettling accompanimental material when Mrs. Lovett takes a verse. This song can function as a relatively sweet lullaby  - if you don't know too much about it (and if you don't mind a big emphasis on "Demons"), but Sondheim could certainly have saved it for a more traditionally comforting context and gotten more heartwarming mileage out of it. I'm not sure he wrote a more beautiful song, and though its beauty works beautifully in the scene, one couldn't blame him if he'd saved it for something less horrifying.

I also really admire Sondheim's willingness to write what I hear as purposefully bad music. Well, good bad. At the top of Act II in Into the Woods, various characters are singing about how they're "so happy." They sing it over and over, a shapely phrase that might've gone somewhere interesting - except we're not supposed to believe in this happiness, so it just keeps repeating without much development until finally a big crash sends the characters into chaos. I remember first being bothered by this music and this scene as it felt so static, until it dawned on me what was going on. This is a good example of how Sondheim's music doesn't always make a great first impression - but its impact often deepens on repeat listenings because it's serving deeper purposes.

Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are among the composer's most approachable shows. The former has an immersive operatic appeal and, though grisly, its story is compelling; the latter has a wonderful child-like facade with relatable characters. I'm probably not supposed to say it, but I wish Sondheim had written a few more shows like these, even if I know it wouldn't be true to who he was to return to the same well over and over.

On the other hand, I'm surprised how much I love the more offbeat charms of Company. It has a dated '70s sound and a high concept structure that isn't as obviously gripping as shows about madmen and giants. Honestly, I think I could make a pretty strong case for why I should hate the opening title number of Company, but even though it sometimes sounds like manic refugees from Sesame Street hyping up their dinner parties, I find it irresistible. (I did hate it on first listen.) And though I never thought I'd find the big personality, non-singerly manner of Elaine Stritch engaging, every second she sings on the original cast recording is amazing. (Maybe especially some of the really flat notes.*)

The room Sondheim gives his performers shows admirable humility, but as with "Not while I'm around," the willingness to subvert beautiful music in the service of story really comes to the fore in "Getting married today." I can remember first listening to the cast recording and being almost repulsed by the shrill opening "Bless this day" solo. I'm not sure what the effect is supposed to be of this peculiar celebrant who coldly observes a bride falling apart; but at least on the original cast recording, the perfectly fine, but unusually high melody sounds claustrophobic, increasingly so as on subsequent hallucinogenic entries the backup singers buzzily hum along. Following the short opening, Paul sings passionately to Amy, his bride-to-be, a declaration of love which wouldn't be out of place in South Pacific or even Puccini, though it seems a little out of place in this show. It's a great tune.

But this is all setup for the main event: Amy's absurdly high-strung patter that makes Gilbert and Sullivan's Nightmare Song seem like a dirge. Somehow the creepy soprano blessing and the overripe tenor are the perfect frame for helping us understand how desperately Amy feels overmatched by her circumstances. Again, Sondheim could've saved Paul's music for a more classic romantic scene, but here its beauty is cause for a panic, so it becomes a kind of romantic self-parody. The last few pages of simultaneous singing are particularly stunning as Amy's manic unravelling makes Paul's melody seems lost at sea, and the chorus barks tone-deaf Amens into the mix. I'm not sure it's my favorite Sondheim song, but it packs an incredible punch.

I suppose my point is that one proof of Sondheim's brilliance as a composer is how effectively he uses his virtuoso songwriting skills to undermine his own songwriting - and thus lead us to unexpected places that resonate with our own interior experiences and frustrations. (I can almost directly connect the dots from how Amy feels to how my mind can spin in meetings listening to overly positive, promising-too-much presentations.) I don't love every one of his songs, and there are shows of his which I still haven't come to know well, but no one can say he took the easy path. Getting to know each show requires a commitment to listen into the oddities, to look for more than just good tunes (though there are so many), so it makes sense that it would take time. It's very sad that Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us, but I'm selfishly glad that I still have a lot more to learn from him. 


* Seriously, the incredible held "LOVE" from Stritch starting just after 3:59 here is like nothing else. Or it's like a goat wandered into the studio. Seth Rudetsky does a great job breaking this down at 8:22 here.

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